In his recent book Judaism Straight Up (reviewed in Mosaic here), the legal scholar and computer scientist Moshe Koppel offers an unusual and vigorous apologia for both Orthodox Judaism and for tradition itself. He does this through a study of two Jewish character types, the pious Shimen and the educated, liberal, cosmopolitan Heidi. Mark Gottlieb observes:
A pillar of Koppel’s argument is the priority of actions over beliefs, of concrete forms of life over grand narratives. Of course, he acknowledges the interdependence of these things, but as a matter of principle and practiced experience, he privileges behaviors as the decisive factor in religious decision-making. . . . Koppel insists that . . . “virtues and traditions are primary and beliefs are derivative.”
Koppel acknowledges that Shimen was raised at home and ḥeder (the primary-school version of yeshiva) to believe certain things. The most foundational of these include God’s revelation of the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai, a system of reward and punishment expressing God’s ubiquitous, if not always transparent, justice, and the promise of a redeemed world at the end of history. But for Koppel, these affirmations coalesce into the single belief that Judaism is a “directed process linking the Jewish past with the Jewish future.” The rest, Koppel says, is commentary.
Now, it’s fine for a philosophical mathematician like Koppel to abstract the multifariousness of Jewish practice and belief into one pithy formula, but the learned game theorist is making a bolder, perhaps more controversial claim. Stated baldly, it’s this: the real subject matter of Jewish belief is Jewish practice.
And Jewish practice (like the beliefs that encode that practice) is a self-regulating, self-reinforcing system, which does not stand or fall on the evidentiary record or on the veracity of the historical events on which the faith is founded.